Time running out on MTCO contract

BANGKOK, 11 June 2018: Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office executive director, Jens Thraenhart’s contract runs out 30 June, just days after the Mekong Tourism Forum is hosted in Nakhon Phanom, 26 to 29 June in northeast Thailand.

So far the six-country group that oversees the office has not commented on whether it will renew the director’s contract, or start a recruitment process.

Thraenhart will have just one day left on his second two-year contract when the Mekong Tourism Forum closes. He has served as executive director of the MTCO since July 2014.

The burning question, ahead of the event, is whether the six-country group will conclude contract negotiations in time to make an announcement during the annual forum.

They are due to meet Monday 25 June for the half-year Tourism Working Group meeting and again on Tuesday 26 June for a board meeting when it is hoped they will make an announcement on the future of the executive director.

However, up to now the six country’s tourism leaders have not made public their intentions on the MTCO executive director’s contract and if there is a delay it would prompt questions and possibly doubts about on long-term future of the office.

The Greater Mekong Sub-region Tourism Working Group represents the six countries of Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. It funds the MTCO office, which has two staff, through equal share contributions from all member countries.

It hired Thraenhart on a two-year contract July 2014, and extended it for a second term that expires 30 June, this year.

Now the Tourism Working Group is apparently considering whether to offer him an unprecedented third two-year term.

TTR Weekly understands that at the year-end board meeting held in Yangon last December, the group agreed not to start a recruitment process. It would normally take six months to complete the process if the TWG agreed on that option.

At the time the board indicated that it would set in motion the process to renew Thraenhart’s contract for another two years breaking with the tradition of a maximum term of four years. However, just two weeks before the 21st Mekong Tourism Forum opens Thraenhart’s contract has not been renewed.

Asked to comment, Thraenhart said the countries needed to decide on what they want to do going forward.

“This is not just about me, but MTCO’s performance over the last four years and maybe the last 10 years.”

There has been some talk about the MTCO working more closely with the ASEAN tourism secretariat. All the Mekong Region countries, bar China, are members of ASEAN. Details are sketchy on how that would work.

China is also flexing its muscles with regards the Mekong Region, injecting billions of dollars in mega dams, in rail networks and airport projects. In 2015, it established a Mekong-Lancang grouping (Lancang is the name of the Mekong River in Chinese). It has also invested USD 400 million to support SME businesses in the Mekong River basis.

So the future of Mekong Tourism as a group and the MTCO is far from being set in stone, particularly as China increases its influence in both inbound and outbound travel and has aspirations to take high ranking posts in regional and global organisations linked to tourism.

When pressed on his immediate future, Thraenhart commented: “There’s a new new board meeting on the eve of the forum…they may change their mind on renewing my contract, anything can happen so we just have to wait right now. I don’t have an answer.”

However, he did confirm that the countries appeared to be “quite happy with the work done and this is not just about me… but how we collaborated with the countries; we have very good relations with the governments.”

Queried on whether he would be happy with another two years, Thraenhart said: “ Yes, I would be happy with another two years. We have built the platform and now the hardest part is to figure our how to engage businesses and move forward and drive it”.

He points to the success of the website that has been transformed into an engagement platform that focuses on shared content and supports programmes that came from the Mekong tourism strategy.

“We have worked hard to build the platform, now it is about driving it… we have an engagement platform, created the projects, but if I leave now and no one is doing anything, what would be the value?”